The Kalamazoo Promise reaches a milestone this June.
This is first class of graduating seniors that have gone from kindergarten through high school with the college scholarship guarantee in place.
The challenge now for the Promise is making sure more students don’t just start college, but also finish.
In 2005, anonymous donors created the Kalamazoo Promise college scholarship.
To date, the Promise has paid out $117 million. It’s sent about 7,000 Kalamazoo students to four-year universities or community colleges. Students have ten years to use the scholarship.
Darrel Hobson admits the Kalamazoo Promise is making it easier as his son decides where he wants to go to college in the fall.
“He would have went to college anyway, but it alleviates a lot of stress off the three of us as far as the financial piece,” says Hobson, as he and his wife and teenage son sit around the dining room table.
But there is a difference between starting college and finishing it.
“Sometimes, there’s a good reason for a kid to ‘stop-out’ of college," says Michelle Miller-Adams, a fellow at the W.E. Upjohn Institute who's been studying the effects of the Kalamazoo Promise since its inception. "Sometimes kids will go to college and say, ‘What am I doing here?’ 'I don’t know what I want to study.' 'I’m going to take some time.' But there are also some not good reasons why students stop-out. Perhaps they’re not prepared academically. Or they’re not prepared socially or emotionally."
Data for the first few classes of Promise students show fewer than half have gotten a college diploma.
The numbers also show a sharp racial divide.
White Kalamazoo grads are completing degrees and certificates at a rate of about 50%. But the rate for African-American and Latino students is only about 15%.
Michael Rice is the Kalamazoo Public Schools superintendent. He says the Kalamazoo Promise has been a “wonderful force.” But that’s not enough.
“It simply hasn’t changed the socio-economic numbers in our community,” says Rice.
While the Promise helped increase enrollment in Kalamazoo Public Schools by more than 20%, the district is still drawing from a community with deep pockets of poverty.
Rice says roughly 70% of KPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. He adds that’s a factor in a district still trailing state average test scores and graduation rates.
Kalamazoo’s experience is not unique.
There are about 300 Promise-style programs around the country that have found the scholarships alone are not enough.
“We should be asking questions about whether the benefit is going to people who would have gone to college anyhow, even without the award,” says University of Pennsylvania professor Laura Perna. “We should also be asking questions about the extent to which the students who are getting the award have enough of the supports to actually complete whatever educational program they start.”
Von Washington Jr. is a former principal of Kalamazoo Central high school, who now works for the Kalamazoo Promise organization.
He says Promise officials feel a responsibility to reach out to struggling students and ask questions that will help keep them on the path to a degree or professional certification.
Washington says Promise officials have been trying to improve their degree completion numbers by giving students more support in college.
Roughly two-thirds of Promise students attend either Western Michigan University or Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Washington says there are now Promise “coaches” at both schools to help those students navigate college.
The program is also trying to prepare current KPS students for college life.
Sixth graders take day trips to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
And back in December, the Promise brought back college students receiving the scholarship. They visited the city’s high schools to talk about what life is really like in college.
“I’m Kendra Parkland and I graduated last year,” the Wayne State University student told a class of mainly freshman high school students. The students asked her about partying, studying and other issues related to college life.
While they were excited to come back to their old high school for the day, many of the Promise students said they don’t plan on moving back to Kalamazoo after college.
And that’s a problem. The Kalamazoo Promise was supposed to be about improving Kalamazoo’s workforce.
“Any community of our size in the Midwest is faced with that challenge,” says Andrew Haan, the president of the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership. “I think the opportunity is for us to think about really work on having a community that these kids want to stay in.”
One of the high school seniors donning his cap and gown in June is Isaiah Hobson, son of Darrel Hobson.
Isaiah knows where he plans to go to college. But he’s not sure where he plans to live after college.
“It kind of just depends on what happens over the next four years,” Isaiah says. “Part of everybody from Michigan wants to get away from the weather. And, you know, maybe go live in Florida or California or somewhere nice.”
Though Hobson says, when he has kids, it would be a wonderful thing for them to have the Kalamazoo Promise too.